Archive for June, 2012

They Call It Myanmar

June 30, 2012

Writer and filmmaker, Robert H. Lieberman, spent two years putting together this documentary about Myanmar (known in the West as Burma). Much of the filming had to be done secretly, because Myanmar has a military government that is highly secretive and suspicious of outsiders. Except for Aung San Suu Kyi, a leading dissident who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, none of the people interviewed in this film are identified, for fear of government reprisals.

Myanmar used to be one of the wealthiest countries in Asia. It is now one of the poorest. Lieberman shows us crumbling buildings in Rangoon, the nation’s capitol. The military seized control of the country in 1962. They have mismanaged the economy ever since. The generals are ultra-nationalists who are deeply suspicious of the outside world. The situation is strikingly similar to that of North Korea, except that there is no cult of personality. Instead, the generals rule as a faceless bureaucracy, remote from the people.

The British invaded Myanmar in the early 19th century, and, after a series of wars, took control of the country in 1885. They ruthlessly exploited the people and their country. When the Japanese invaded during World War II, many Myanmarese welcomed them as liberators. Yet the Japanese occupation turned out to be even more brutal than that of the British, and the Myanmarese turned against them. (The parallels to the history of the US in Iraq and in Afghanistan is striking here.) The country was finally granted independence in 1948. Given the country’s history, the xenophobic views of the military actually make some sense.

The World Health Organization has ranked Myanmar as 190th in the quality of its health care. Most people cannot afford to see a real doctor. Many resort to seeing quacks who have little or no medical training. Education is also out of reach for most people. Many of the people interviewed in this film have had only one or two years of schooling. There are free schools run by Buddhist monks, but their quality of education is uneven. Many of them teach only basic reading and math and Buddhist religious ideas. Those who manage to get a college education often choose to emigrate to other countries, with the result that the country doesn’t benefit from their knowledge.

Child labor is common. We see, for example, a young girl who can’t be more than eight or nine years old carrying a basket full of gravel on her head. It’s not unusual for families to sell their children to work as servants for rich people.

Myanmar is a country with a rich culture and history. The countryside is dotted with beautiful Buddhist temples, some of them more than a thousand years old. The film emphasizes the importance of Buddhism in the nation’s culture. However, it says nothing about the country’s Christian, Muslim, and Hindu minorities. I would have liked to learn something about these groups.

There have been uprisings against the government, most notably the failed “Saffrom Revolution” of 2007. Each time these revolts have been brutally supressed. Lieberman tries to end the film on an optimistic note by saying that the young people in the country seem to feel less bound by the government’s sanctioned conventions. It is also proving increasingly difficult to keep out foreign influences. We see, for example, scenes of Burmese punk rock bands performing. Yet it’s not clear whether this will have any political consequences.

Lieberman repeatedly says that going to Myanmar is like going back in time. Is this really so? Here is a country in which a small number of people control most of the wealth, while most people can’t afford an education or decent health care, and in which the military enjoys unlimited power. Is this not the direction in which our own country is heading? Doesn’t Myanmar perhaps give us a glimpse into our own future?

Obamacare Lives

June 29, 2012

I owe John Roberts an apology. I had written him off as nothing more than a right-wing hack. It turns out that he is smarter than I thought. In arguing for the majority in their ruling on Obamacare, he wrote: “The federal government does have the power to impose a tax on those without health insurance.” That’s exactly what the individual mandate is: a tax on people who cannot afford health insurance.

All my liberal friends are high fiving one another over this decision. Yet this bill will not expand the social safety net. True, it does expand Medicaid, but it also makes cuts in Medicare. The result is a zero sum game. Obamacare will not solve the health care crisis. It will merely change the parameters of the crisis.

We Have a Pope

June 27, 2012

Although I am not a Catholic, I have always felt a peculiar connection to the Catholic Church. My father came from a family of devout Catholics. My great-father reportedly came to this country to escape the kulturkampf, Bismarck’s campaign to suppress the power of the Catholic Church in Germany. (Since my great-grandfather was a coal miner, it’s not clear to me why this would have affected him. I will have to do more research on this.) My father was sent to a Catholic school, an experience that had the happy effect of making him into an atheist. What’s more, most of my friends were raised as Catholics, and the ones who aren’t traumatized still go to mass occasionally. Oh, and I once played a priest in a school play.

So, I was naturally interested in seeing Nanni Moretti’s latest film, We Have a Pope. I didn’t know whether this film would be a satire of the Church or simply a “feel good” comedy in priestly drag. Strange to say, it turns out to be neither.

The College of Cardinals has gathered to choose a new Pope. After several inconclusive ballots, they elect the unassuming Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli) as the new pontiff. Just before he is to be presented to the crowd in St. Peter’s square, however, he suffers a panic attack that turns into a nervous breakdown. He tells the Cardinals that the burden of the papacy would be too much for him. (Could it really be that much of a burden? Basically all the Pope has to do is make speeches denouncing contraception.) Out of desperation, the cardinals bring in a psychoanalyst, Brezzi, (Nanni Moretti) to examine Melville. Their sessions get nowhere. Brezzi mentions that his wife, (Margherita Buy), is also a therapist. Melville persuades the Vatican press agent (Jerzy Stuhr) to take him in disguise to see this woman. On their way back, Melville manages to run away. Melville wanders around Rome. He eventually falls in with a troupe of actors who are putting on a production of Chekhov’s The Seagull. Meanwhile, the cardinals are stuck at the Vatican, because, according to tradition, they cannot leave the conclave until the new Pope has been announced. To pass the time, Brezzi organizes a volleyball tournament.

The main problem with We Have a Pope is that it’s never made clear why Melville is so afraid of becoming Pope. He merely mumbles vague statements about how he is not worthy of the position. The closest we get to an explanation is when he tells Brezzi’s wife that he once wanted to be an actor. But wouldn’t that make the papacy attractive to him? After all, church ceremonies are basically a form of theater.

There are a few funny moments, but not enough for this film to qualify as a comedy. The ending is inexplicably melodramatic. From a balcony, Melville tells a huge crowd in St. Peter’s square that he cannot be Pope. He then goes inside and the screen goes black. It’s not clear what exactly Moretti is trying to say about the Catholic Church. Moretti has said about this film: “I wanted to depict a fragile man, Cardinal Melville, who feels inadequate in the face of power and the role he’s called to fill … I think this feeling of inadequacy happens to all cardinals elected Pope, or at least that’s what they say.” Unfortunately, Moretti is unable to show why we should care about this.

LeRoy Neiman, Hugh Hefner, and the Struggle Against Perversion

June 25, 2012

This man says you’re not gay.

LeRoy Neiman has died. I was not going to say anything about this until I came across this article in the Los Angeles Times by Christopher Knight. It reveals the secret behind the peculiar appeal of Neiman’s paintings:

    Usually mischaracterized as simply a sports artist, he was actually much more than that. Neiman was the painter of the “Playboy Philosophy.”

    To be more specific, he was the artist for Playboy readers afraid that liking art was gay.

There you have it. Some men need to look at Neiman’s paintings to reassure themselves that they’re not sexually attracted to other men. Ah, but there’s more to it than that. It seems that Neiman’s paintings were actually part of a campaign to keep America butch. The article explains:

    Hefner targeted the magazine [Playboy] at young urban men. Its philosophy centered on a suave but stereotypic view of red-blooded male heterosexuality. The sexual revolution it championed was framed as an antidote to perversion.

    “If we desire a healthy, heterosexual society,” Hefner said in defense of Playboy, “we must begin stressing heterosexual sex; otherwise, our society will remain sick and perverted.”

These are high-minded sentiments. And all these years you thought Hugh Hefner was just a bullshit artist who’s too lazy to change out of his pajamas. It turns out that Hef (those in his inner circle call him “Ner”) has been waging a lonely struggle to protect you and me from “perversion”. Now, don’t you just feel small and ungrateful? Don’t you?

Music from the Big House

June 23, 2012

Rita Chiarelli and Ray Jones in Music from the Big House.

During the 1880’s, a former Confederate army officer named Samuel James persuaded the Louisiana state government to let him lease convicts (most of them black) to work his plantation, known as “Angola”, because it was believed that the slaves who once worked there were from that country. After James died, the Louisiana State Penitentiary was built on the site. It was commonly known as Angola Prion. It is said that conditions there were horrendous. It is also believed that the prison played a role in the development of blues music. Leadbelly and other musicians spent time there as prisoners.

The Canadian musician, Rita Chiarelli, visited Angola while she was doing research on the history of blues music. She discovered that some of the prisoners there play blues or country music. She decided to organize a concert in which she would perform with these men. This took a certain amount of courage, considering that these men were convicted of violent crimes. Most of them are serving life sentences.

Of the various people we meet in this film, perhaps the most interesting is Ray Jones, who has been a prisoner at Angola for thirty years. He killed a man during a drunken fight. Jones was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. He tells us, “In Louisiana, life means life”, meaning that the parole board rarely shortens convicts’ sentences. Jones expects to spend the rest of his life at Angola. Chiarelli tells us that most of the people we see in this film will probably die in prison. (In one scene, we are shown the prison cemetery.) Not surprisingly, many of them are deeply religious. (Marx: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”) Jones is an ordained minister, and he acts as a spiritual adviser to the other prisoners, as well as being the prison librarian. (I know a man who was wrongly convicted of murder and spent time in prison. He too became a minister.)

Although conditions at Angola have improved since the early twentieth century, it is, like all prisons, a grim place. In one scene we are shown the area in which Jones lives. There are about fifty bunk beds lined up in rows. The prisoners keep their belongings in wooden boxes at the foot of their beds. They have no privacy. We are told that this is actually one of the better parts of the penitentiary. Prisoners are moved here as a reward for good behavior.

The concert scenes are wonderful to watch. Chiarelli is an appealing person, and she develops a real rapport with the prisoners. At a time when there are incessant calls for increasingly harsh punishments for crimes, it is refreshing to see a film that argues for the possibility of human redemption.


June 18, 2012

Ridley Scott’s latest film is a prequel to Alien. After the Star Wars fiasco, one would think that directors would be leery of prequels. Scott is apparently a gutsy man.

Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) are archaeologists who have discovered evidence that early humans had contact with extraterrestrials, whom they call “Engineers”. They have also discovered a star map that they believe shows where these beings came from. They then persuade Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), the elderly CEO of Weyland Corporation, to fund an expedition to find the Engineers. Weyland is impressed by their evidence (although I wasn’t). He spends a trillion dollars to send Shaw and Holloway and fifteen others to a moon orbiting a far distant planet. The trip takes over two years, and they spend most of the time in stasis. An android, David (Michael Fassbender) runs the ship in the meantime. When they reach their destination, Shaw and Holloway explain to the others what the trip is about. (These people agreed to a two-year trip billions of miles into space without knowing what it’s about? I find that hard to believe.) They come across a large mound that appears to be artificially constructed. The mission director, Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) tells Shaw and Holloway not to try to make contact with the Engineers without her permission. This is our first intimation that they are being used for ulterior motives.

The H.R. Giger sets and slimy monster are fun to look at. Prometheus, however, ultimately leaves one feeling vaguely dissatisfied. The similarities between this film and Alien (a malevolent android, people meeting unpleasant ends at the mercy of alien creatures) make it feel a bit familiar at times. Also, there too many things in this film that either are not adequately explained or simply don’t make sense. For example, no one seems to notice when David goes off exploring by himself. And the character of Vickers makes no sense. Her only motive seems to be jealousy of David, who is Weyland’s confidant. Late in the film it is revealed that she is Weyland’s daughter, though it’s not clear why this has been kept a secret. And why would she go on a dangerous expedition with uncertain prospects when she could be managing her ailing father’s corporate empire back on Earth? As for David, he displays an extreme vindictiveness that is never really accounted for. Is it really just because he feels unappreciated by the other characters, or is there something more going on with him? Or maybe they just haven’t gotten all the bugs out of the android design yet? (Fassbender delivers his lines in a quiet voice that is clearly meant to remind us of HAL the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey.)

As with many science fiction films nowadays, the events in this film are driven by a corrupt capitalist. Yet it turns out that Weyland’s real motives are not profit, but his belief that the Engineers can prolong his life. (And why should he assume this?) And the ending is implausible. After everyone else is killed off, Shaw decides that, instead of returning to Earth, she will find out why the Engineers want to kill humans. Could this be the set-up for a sequel?

At one point in Prometheus, Shaw is impregnated with an alien creature. At a time when Republicans are ramming through anti-abortion legislation in many states, it’s nice to see a Hollywood film that makes a good argument for abortion rights.

Darling Companion

June 15, 2012

I must confess to bearing a grudge against Lawrence Kasdan. It was bad enough that his over-hyped film, The Big Chill, turned out to be thoroughly mediocre. Even worse was the fact that it seemed as though at every party I went to when I was in my early twenties, someone would play the Big Chill soundtrack. When I was in high school, I had to listen to Joy to the World (Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog) about a million times, and now here I was, an adult, Mr. Would-be Hipster, listening to that same stupid song another million times.

I do not forget, and I do not forgive.

Still, I tried to keep an open mind while I was watching Kasdan’s latest film, Darling Companion. Beth Winter (Diane Keaton) and her daughter, Grace (Elisabeth Moss) find a stray dog along the side of the road. Over the objections of Beth’s husband, Joseph (Kevin Kline), they adopt the dog and name him Freeway. A year later, Grace has her wedding at her parents’ second home in the Rockies. Joseph’s sister, Penny (Dianne Wiest ) attends, along with her fiance, Russell (Richard Jenkins), and her son by a previous marriage, Bryan (Mark Duplass). Both Bryan and Joseph are wary of Russell, who they suspect is trying take financial advantage of Penny.

The next day Joseph takes Freeway for a walk in the woods. Freeway chases a deer and runs off. Joseph is unable to find him. When he tells Beth about this, she is immediately upset, especially since she has always suspected Joseph of not really liking Freeway. Penny, Russell, and Bryan all volunteer to stay longer to help find Freeway. The Winters’ housekeeper, Carmen (Ayelet Zurer) tells them that she is half Gypsy, and, as a result, she has psychic powers. In spite of Carmen’s not quite convincing accent, they believe her. It was not clear to me whether Kasdan was trying to poke fun at a stereotype of Gypsies, or whether he was simply using this as a plot device. Unfortunately, I suspect the latter. Carmen has “visions” of Freeway’s whereabouts, which inspire the others to go off looking in various places. They are sometimes assisted by gruff, but lovable, Sheriff Morris (Sam Shepard). (From my own experiences with sheriffs, I would say that while they are often gruff, they are rarely lovable.) During these excursions, the characters “grow”, as they say in the screenwriting business. Beth and Joseph are eventually reconciled. Bryan realizes that Russell is really not a bad guy. It’s all very pat and predictable. And of course they finally find Freeway in an extremely improbable manner.

So, a misfortune brings a group of people together on a journey of self-discovery. This film is basically The Big Chill all over again, only instead of formerly radical thirty-somethings, we have fifty-somethings who haven’t yet joined the Tea Party. (I’m sure they will, eventually.)

The actors in this film all try hard, but they can’t overcome Kasdan’s by-the-numbers approach to screenwriting.

Sound of My Voice

June 13, 2012

Sound of My Voice is the second film I’ve seen in the past year that portrays a Manson-type cult. (The other was Martha Marcy May Marlene.) I don’t know whether this is a coincidence or whether it says something about our current political and economic climate. Perhaps with the erosion of our civil liberties people are beginning to feel as though they are trapped in a cult. (At least I feel that way sometimes.)

Sound of My Voice was co-written and directed by Zal Batmanglij. It was co-written by, and stars, Brit Marling, who also co-wrote and starred in Another Earth. Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) are aspiring film makers working on a documentary about cults. Peter supports them by working as a schoolteacher. They infiltrate a cult, whose leader, Maggie (Brit Marling) claims to be from the future. (2054 to be exact.) The members of the cult meet in the basement of a house in the San Fernando Valley. Peter and Lorna don’t know its exact location because they are always blind-folded when they are driven there. Maggie speaks vaguely about a coming civil war, and she tells her followers they must prepare themselves for it. She makes them undergo a series of increasingly humiliating rituals. Peter’s behavior during one of these meetings causes Lorna to suspect that he is starting to buy into Maggie’s claims. Maggie has a private meeting with Peter, in which she asks him to bring one of his students, Abigail (Avery Pohl) to her. When he asks her why, she says that Abigail is her mother. When Peter suggests to Lorna that they actually do this, she walks out on him.

Shortly after that, Lorna meets Carol Briggs (Davenia McFadden), who tells her she is with the Department of Justice. She says she knows Maggie’s true identity and that Maggie is wanted for armed robbery and for arson. (Presumably, the government has been spying on Peter and Lorna, since Briggs knows all about them.) Briggs persuades Lorna to help her. At Briggs’s suggestion, Lorna devises a plan with Peter (who doesn’t know that Lorna is now working for the government) to bring Abigail on a field trip to a museum, where she will meet Maggie. Briggs plans to have Maggie arrested there. The twist to this whole thing is that just before Maggie is arrested, something happens that suggests she may really be from the future.

Sound of My Voice leaves so many questions unanswered, that at the end one feels as though one has only watched the first half of the movie. Is Maggie really from the future? If so, why does she try to start a cult, and what does she intend to do with it? Did Maggie really commit armed robbery and arson, or are the police mistaken? Or does the government have an ulterior motive in arresting her? There are moments in the film that suggest that more is going on than what the characters are telling us, though nothing ever comes from this. I suppose some will say that this ambiguity is the point, but what is the good of raising questions that have no answers? It’s all too easy to use ambiguity to make a film seem more clever or more profound than it actually is. (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, for example, sometimes does this.)

Brit Marling is believable as Maggie, and the cult scenes create a deep sense of unease, but I wish the story had more meat on its bones.

Ray Bradbury and ‘Fahrenheit 451’

June 10, 2012

When I was in junior high school I read Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. It made a very strong impression on me. I immediately began reading everything I could find by Bradbury. I was surprised to discover that most of his writings were neither science fiction nor fantasy, even though his books were always located in the science fiction section in bookstores. (This was back when bookstores were a fairly common sight, before Barnes & Noble and Amazon pretty much killed off the book retail business.) I dutifully read each one, however, hoping to find something that would affect me the way The Martian Chronicles did, but that never happened. What’s more, it seemed to me that his writings became increasingly sentimental as he got older, so I eventually stopped reading them.

Fahrenheit 451 is Bradbury’s most famous book, even though it is not his best, and it is even atypical of his work, since it is his only dystopian fantasy. It is set in a future in which the government burns books and most people spend their free time watching gigantic television screens. When I heard about Bradbury’s recent death at the age of 91, I decided to watch Truffaut’s 1966 film adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. Truffaut’s film is not as bleak as Bradbury’s novel (the latter ends with society being destroyed by nuclear war), but it suffers from the same basic problem that the book does: it is a political story without any politics in it.

Guy Montag (Oskar Werner) works as a “fireman”, which is actually a policeman who finds and destroys books. The government has passed a law outlawing all books, regardless of their content. Montag is married to Linda (Julie Christie), his stay-at-home wife who spends most of her time watching vapid TV shows. Montag’s captain (Cyril Cusack) thinks highly of him and recommends him for a promotion. One day, while taking the monorail home from work, he meets Clarice (also played by Julie Christie), whose free-spirited and inquisitive personality he finds oddly appealing. She seems to plant some seeds of doubt in his personality, for at a book burning he snatches a copy of David Copperfield and brings it home to read it. He begins bringing other books home and reading them as well. This causes tensions between him and Linda, who disapproves of reading. At a book burning at an old woman’s house, the woman (Bee Duffell) sets herself on fire along with her books. This incident leaves Montag feeling profoundly disturbed, which leads to a confrontation with Linds. She informs on him. Montag is forced to flee.

Clarice has told him about a group of people living outside the city known as the “book people”. Montag goes to them. They are people determined to preserve the world’s books by memorizing them. Each person is required to memorize one book word for word and then destroy it. Why destroy the books? Because, we are told, so the police can’t destroy them. I have a serious problem with this. What real difference is there between them destroying the books or the firemen destroying them? And having people memorize books is an obviously impractical way of preserving them. Wouldn’t it make more sense to record the books on microfilm, or some other medium that can easily be hidden?

For that matter, why does the government burn books? The captain tells Montag that it’s because books make people “anti-social” and “unhappy”, which isn’t really true, so what’s the real reason? We’re never told. In fact, we’re told almost nothing about the government itself. It’s clearly a police state, but we’re told nothing about its ideology. Some would argue that is the point: people are so busy watching TV that no one cares what the government is doing. And yet there are some people who still read books. The firemen seem very busy in this film. So why does the government regard these people as a threat, even if they read books that are not political at all?

The book burnings in Fahrenheit 451 are clearly meant to remind us of the book burnings in Nazi Germany. The Nazis, however, burned only certain books, and they did so for reasons that were explicitly political.

The lack of politics in the story is a serious weakness. George Orwell”s 1984 is compelling because of its political ideas, even though these ideas are flawed. By comparison, Fahrenheit 451 seems flat.

Fahrenheit 451 is thought of as an anti-censorship novel, but it is actually an anti-television novel. Bradbury himself said as much. (Bradbury sometimes wrote for television, so his feelings about the medium were apparently mixed.) It depicts a world that has declared war on the printed word. Interestingly, Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in the early 1950’s, when many of the pulp magazines he wrote for in his youth were going out of business, largely because they couldn’t compete with the still relatively new medium of television. One suspects that there was an element of resentment fueling this novel. Six years after he wrote Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury wrote Dandelion Wine, a sentimental fictionalized account of his childhood in 1920’s Illinois. (A book that owes a lot to Thomas Wolfe, though it has none of Wolfe’s sharp social commentary in it.) It perhaps shouldn’t be surprising then that Bradbury became a political reactionary in his later years, expressing admiration for Ronald Reagan and for George W. Bush. Considering this, it’s perhaps just as well then that there are no politics in Fahrenheit 451.

Despite the weaknesses of its story, Truffaut’s film is nonetheless entertaining to watch. Truffaut greatly admired Hitchcock, and this film has a Hitchcockian look and feel to it: claustrophobic rooms and hallways, with a subtle and mounting feeling of dread. The book burning scenes are disturbing to watch, as they should be.

Triumph of the Will

June 6, 2012

I recently saw Triumph of the Will. I felt obligated to watch it because it is considered the penultimate example of a political propaganda film. Such is its notoriety, that when Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 first came out, right-wing pundits immediately tried to smear it by comparing it to Triumph of the Will. Of course, they only revealed their intellectual poverty by doing so, since Moore’s approach to film making is nothing at all like Leni Riefenstahl’s.

The early scenes depict Hitler’s arrival in Nuremberg for a party rally. The creepy thing about these scenes is how normal they seem. Take away the gaudy uniforms and raised arms and Hitler could be just your ordinary politician, shaking hands with people, smiling for the camera, and engaging in small talk with the plebeians. It’s not until Hitler addresses the Reichsarbeitsdienst, a sort of paramilitary construction group, that we begin to sense that something profoundly weird is going on here. From a visual standpoint, this is the best part of the film, because there is something slightly surreal about the sight of hundreds of uniformed men marching around with shovels as if they were rifles. This cuts to a spooky scene of storm troopers gamboling in the woods at night. (At least I think that’s what they’re doing. It’s hard to tell.) Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there: seemingly endless scenes of people marching around, with an inexplicably large number of them carrying Nazi flags, occasionally interspersed with speeches by Hitler.

The most striking thing about this film, however, is how physically unimpressive the Nazi leaders are. Many of them are fat: Goering, Wagner, Ley, Streicher. Wagner, Rosenberg, and Ley sweat profusely. Schirach has sweaty armpits. Hess, however, looks underfed, and he has a strangely high-pitched voice. (I must say, though, he did know how to give a crisp salute.) Lutze also has an annoyingly high-pitched voice. (Did Hitler have a thing for male sopranos?) Goebbels looks like a weasel. As for Himmler, why didn’t they just put at bag over this guy’s head? Seriously, he could have had a lucrative career as a character actor in Hollywood, playing ignorant rubes who get taken in by the likes of W.C. Fields. (“Here’s all my life’s savings, mister. Give me all the bottles you can of that there miracle elixir!”) Even the storm troopers and SS men are unimpressive. They look a bit scrawny, and their uniforms often don’t seem to fit quit right. Hitler, however, looks well-fed. Yet the plumpness of his face makes you uncomfortably aware of how silly his tiny moustache looks. And he has too much Brylcream in his hair. (Or whatever was the German equivalent of Brylcream in the 1930’s.) And his uniform makes his ass look huge. (This is true of some of the other people in this film. I wonder, did Hitler think that having a big ass was a sign of racial superiority?)

The reason I bring all this up is that it has often been said that Triumph of the Will was a highly effective advertisement for Nazism. I find this hard to believe. This film is mostly boring. A lot of it is just people marching around to bad music. Riefenstahl knew that rapid cutting and moving the camera around can make things appear more interesting than they actually are, but these tricks can only do so much, and sometimes they can even be counter-productive. When, for example, we see the stage at a rally from a camera that’s being lifted upwards, the effect is merely showy. Indeed, it actually seems a bit naive. True, this was the 1930’s, but they were already using more sophisticated techniques than this in Hollywood – or in Germany’s own cinema, for that matter.

Early in the film, there are evocative shots of the amazingly beautiful city of Nuremberg. Alas, these are marred by the ubiquitous presence of Nazi and German imperialist flags.

Even the speeches are not all that interesting. There are repeated calls for “national unity”, as well as a lot of talk about how the Nazi Reich will last thousands of years (heh, heh). I must say, though, that Hitler did occasionally inflect his voice in interesting ways. There are, however, some ominous references to the notion of “racial purity” in the speeches of Hitler and of Streicher.

In her later years, Riefenstahl collected many awards from film festivals. (Her fellow propagandist, Streicher, was hanged.) Since Triumph of the Will was, far and away, her most famous movie, one must wonder about the people who decided to give her all these honors. Riefenstahl claimed that she was a neutral observer, but this assertion is contradicted by her own film. At the beginning, it says it is Das Dokument der Reichsparteitag 1934 – hergestellt im Auftrage des Fuehrers. (The Documentary of the Reich party conference of 1934 – produced according to the Fuehrer’s instructions.) Well, you can’t get any more explicit than that, can you? Also, it’s clear just from watching this film that Riefenstahl could not have made it without plenty of help from the Nazis. Also, there are some scenes that were clearly staged specifically for the camera.

There’s one scene in the film in which we see Hitler and his cronies watching soldiers riding around on horseback. While I was watching this, I was reminded of the fact that during World War II, 90% of the German army’s supply transport was horse-drawn. The truth was that Germany was actually under-prepared for the war. My father rarely talked about his wartime experiences, but one story he did tell more than once was about when his unit captured a German army base. In the mess hall there was a gigantic soup tureen, which was apparently what everyone ate from. It always amazed my father that a government that could only afford to feed its soldiers gruel actually believed it could conquer the world.